The Search for Major Plagge (Lithuania)

book coveby Michael Good
Courtesy of a purchase from Banana Books, in Long Beach, Washington

He was an intelligence officer in the Wehrmacht. He joined the Nazi Party in 1932, way before anyone “had to”.  A veteran of WWI who walked with a limp, he was a true believer in the promises of Adolf Hitler. He loved the Fatherland and wanted to Make Germany Great Again.

Until.

Until he was stationed at a vehicle repair facility in Vilna, Lithuania, in charge of handing out starvation rations to the Poles and the Jews. Until he saw children in the Vilna Ghetto shot, clubbed, and brutally murdered. Until he saw the Nazis retaliate against escapees, executing 36 women when 1 couple ran away. Until he saw the SS hang not only this couple, but the young child who ran to them from the crowd, calling “Mama! Mama!”

photo Karl PlaggeYes, right then, Major Plagge started to change. He started to do what he could to resist the Nazis, although he would always feel it wasn’t enough. He started employing more Jews. He started handing out work permits to Jews who weren’t even technically skilled, claiming they were “essential” to the war effort. He started serving an extra meal at the factory of hot soup. He started hiding Jews in the workshop. He started to become what he always was–a decent man. The Good German.

He wasn’t the only one. Another Wehrmacht officer in Poland was actually executed for helping the Jews. He too ran a vehicle repair facility. Just another reason why the liberating Americans drew a distinction between the often honorable and decent Wehrmacht and the sadistic cowards in the SS.

The Good Family of America (Formerly Gdud of Lithuania)

the Vilna Ghetto

The Vilna Ghetto

Dr. Michael Good, MD, the author, is alive today because of Karl Plagge. Michel’s mother Pearl was a child in the Vilna Ghetto. She would have been murdered were it not for Major Plagge. The very last thing he did for her and her family was to warn them, at the end of the war, that the SS was going to liquidate the camp and if they wanted to live, they better hide. They did, and they lived.

Against the awful numbers of Jews who died in Lithuania during the war (shot at Ponary, gassed, sent to Auschwitz and Treblinka, clubbed, starved, killed by disease and poverty) what Karl Plagge did doesn’t seem like much. But to the individual people he saved, it was everything.

Vilna's Dawn Gate

Gate of the Dawn in Vilna

At the beginning of the war, Lithuania had a huge Jewish population. About 550,000 people. Vilna itself was 40% Jewish–a cultural center of learning, trade, and history dating back to the early Middle Ages. By the war’s end, only about 2,000 Lithuania Jews were still alive. Of these, Karl Plagge had managed to save 1,000. Half of the survivors owe their lives to Karl Plagge. It boggles the mind.

At the beginning of the War, Michael Good’s mother Pearl had 33 living members of her family. At the end she had 11. Eight of the 11 were alive because of Karl Plagge. One additional member was saved by Plagge but didn’t make it in the end. (Michael’s father and paternal grandfather saved themselves by hiding in the forest. Because this grandfather had been so generous with his non-Jewish neighbors before the war, every Lithuanian and Pole who knew them gave them food or shelter when they could.)

The Questions About Major Plagge

L MapMichael Good and his parents wanted to thank Karl Plagge. There was no Internet yet, so the search was hard and took a long time, but they reached out to other survivors of the Vilna Ghetto. They discovered that many had been seeking Major Plagge for a long time. What had happened to him at the end of the war?

Did he go through a De-Nazification hearing, like so many camp commandants? Was he hung as a war criminal, like so many SS and Wehrmacht officers? Was he really the hero that Pearl Good (formerly Perla Esterowicz) remembered? Was he just being nice to his workers so he could get more work out of them? What WERE his motivations? Was he still alive? Did he have children or grandchildren who could be thanked? Did Karl Plagge get arrested by the Soviets, and “disappeared” into a gulag like the Swedish hero Raoul Wallenberg (who saved 10,000 Hungarian Jews)?

This book will keep you reading LONG into the night. I couldn’t turn the pages fast enough. I wanted answers, just as Michael Good did.

Taking Liberties in Lithuania

Lithuanian city scene at nightWhy the Polish connection in Lithuania?

This country has had a long hard fight for independence. It first became aware of itself as a nation around 1200, when it coalesced into the Duchy of Lithuania and got its first King. In the late Middle Ages, its ruler and the ruler of Poland got married, so for a few hundred years, the country of Poland-Lithuania was a thing. Later on, the Germans and the Russians fought over it. When Hitler invaded the Sudetenland, he and Stalin split Lithuania. Hitler got Poland and Stalin got Lithuania, and Vilna, the capital, was Polish. Then Hitler attacked Stalin and the Red Army took Lithuania back. And Vilna. (And of course, after WWII, Lithuania was eaten by the Soviet Union. It only got its country back in 1993.)

tradtional clothingSo, as this book opens, the author’s aunt and uncle are running out the back door of their house as the NKVD are breaking down the front door. (That’s the precursor to the KGB.) The Soviets wanted to arrest the Jews and take them to Siberia. IRONICALLY, they would have been better off in the Salt Mines of Siberia than in the Vilna Ghetto under Hitler.

If I’d found a Lithuanian equivalent to the idiom “Out of the Frying Pan Into the Fire” I would’ve inserted it here.

After reading this book and consulting my phone, I know a lot more about Lithuania now than I did. Here is one fact: Before WWII, Lithuania was a mostly Catholic country, while Estonia and Latvia were mostly Protestant. I don’t know about now.

This book was a cracking good read, and you will get all the answers you want in the end. No spoilers from me, however!

Rating: 5 bowls of hot soup.

YAD VASHEM

World Holocaust Museum in IsraelFrom the website of Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Memorial in Israel, the Righteous Among Nations award, which was bestowed on Karl Plagge and others like him:

“Attitudes towards the Jews during the Holocaust mostly ranged from indifference to hostility. The mainstream watched as their former neighbors were rounded up and killed; some collaborated with the perpetrators; many benefited from the expropriation of the Jews property.

“In a world of total moral collapse there was a small minority who mustered extraordinary courage to uphold human values. These were the Righteous Among the Nations. They stand in stark contrast to the mainstream of indifference and hostility that prevailed during the Holocaust. Contrary to the general trend, these rescuers regarded the Jews as fellow human beings who came within the bounds of their universe of obligation.

“Most rescuers started off as bystanders. In many cases this happened when they were confronted with the deportation or the killing of the Jews. Some had stood by in the early stages of persecution, when the rights of Jews were restricted and their property confiscated, but there was a point when they decided to act, a boundary they were not willing to cross. Unlike others, they did not fall into a pattern of acquiescing to the escalating measures against the Jews.

“In many cases it was the Jews who turned to the non-Jew for help. It was not only the rescuers who demonstrated resourcefulness and courage, but also the Jews who fought for their survival. Wolfgang Benz, who did extensive research on rescue of Jews during the Holocaust claims that when listening to rescue stories, the rescued persons may seem to be only objects for care and charity, however “the attempt to survive in illegality was before anything else a self-assertion and an act of Jewish resistance against the Nazi regime. Only few were successful in this resistance”.

“Faced with Jews knocking on their door, bystanders were faced with the need to make an instant decision. This was usually an instinctive human gesture, taken on the spur of the moment and only then to be followed by a moral choice. Often it was a gradual process, with the rescuers becoming increasingly involved in helping the persecuted Jews. Agreeing to hide someone during a raid or roundup – to provide shelter for a day or two until something else could be found – would evolve into a rescue that lasted months and years.

“The price that rescuers had to pay for their action differed from one country to another. In Eastern Europe, the Germans executed not only the people who sheltered Jews, but their entire family as well. Notices warning the population against helping the Jews were posted everywhere. Generally speaking punishment was less severe in Western Europe, although there too the consequences could be formidable and some of the Righteous Among the Nations were incarcerated in camps and killed. Moreover, seeing the brutal treatment of the Jews and the determination on the part of the perpetrators to hunt down every single Jew, people must have feared that they would suffer greatly if they attempted to help the persecuted. In consequence, rescuers and rescued lived under constant fear of being caught; there was always the danger of denunciation by neighbors or collaborators. This increased the risk and made it more difficult for ordinary people to defy the conventions and rules. Those who decided to shelter Jews had to sacrifice their normal lives and to embark upon a clandestine existence – often against the accepted norms of the society in which they lived, in fear of their neighbors and friends – and to accept a life ruled by dread of denunciation and capture.

“Most rescuers were ordinary people. Some acted out of political, ideological or religious convictions; others were not idealists, but merely human beings who cared about the people around them. In many cases they never planned to become rescuers and were totally unprepared for the moment in which they had to make such a far-reaching decision. They were ordinary human beings, and it is precisely their humanity that touches us and should serve as a model. The Righteous are Christians from all denominations and churches, Muslims and agnostics; men and women of all ages; they come from all walks of life; highly educated people as well as illiterate peasants; public figures as well as people from society’s margins; city dwellers and farmers from the remotest corners of Europe; university professors, teachers, physicians, clergy, nuns, diplomats, simple workers, servants, resistance fighters, policemen, peasants, fishermen, a zoo director, a circus owner, and many more.

“Scholars have attempted to trace the characteristics that these Righteous share and to identify who was more likely to extend help to the Jews or to a persecuted person. Some claim that the Righteous are a diverse group and the only common denominator are the humanity and courage they displayed by standing up for their moral principles.  Samuel P. Oliner and Pearl M. Oliner defined the altruistic personality. By comparing and contrasting rescuers and bystanders during the Holocaust, they pointed out that those who intervened were distinguished by characteristics such as empathy and a sense of connection to others. Nehama Tec who also studied many cases of Righteous, found a cluster of shared characteristics and conditions of separateness, individuality or marginality. The rescuers’ independence enabled them to act against the accepted conventions and beliefs.

“Bystanders were the rule, rescuers were the exception. However difficult and frightening, the fact that some found the courage to become rescuers demonstrates that some freedom of choice existed, and that saving Jews was not beyond the capacity of ordinary people throughout occupied Europe. The Righteous Among the Nations teach us that every person can make a difference.

“There were different degrees of help: some people gave food to Jews, thrusting an apple into their pocket or leaving food where they would pass on their way to work. Others directed Jews to people who could help them; some sheltered Jews for one night and told them they would have to leave in the morning. Only a few assumed the entire responsibility for the Jews’ survival. It is mostly the last group that qualifies for the title of the Righteous Among the Nations.

“The main forms of help extended by the Righteous Among the Nations:

“Hiding Jews in the rescuers’ home or on their property.
In the rural areas in Eastern Europe hideouts or bunkers, as they were called, were dug under houses, cowsheds, barns, where the Jews would be concealed from sight. In addition to the threat of death that hung over the Jews’ heads, physical conditions in such dark, cold, airless and crowded places over long periods of time were very hard to bear. The rescuers, whose life was terrorized too, would undertake to provide food – not an easy feat for poor families in wartime – removing the excrements, and taking care of all their wards’ needs. Jews were also hidden in attics, hideouts in the forest, and in any place that could provide shelter and concealment, such as a cemetery, sewers, animal cages in a zoo, etc. Sometimes the hiding Jews were presented as non-Jews, as relatives or adopted children. Jews were also hidden in apartments in cities, and children were placed in convents with the nuns concealing their true identity. In Western Europe Jews were mostly hidden in houses, farms or convents.

“Providing false papers and false identities – in order for Jews to assume the identity of non-Jews they needed false papers and assistance in establishing an existence under an assumed identity. Rescuers in this case would be forgers or officials who produced false documents, clergy who faked baptism certificates, and some foreign diplomats who issued visas or passports contrary to their country’s instructions and policy. Diplomats in Budapest in late 1944 issued protective papers and hung their countries flags over whole buildings, so as to put Jews under their country’s diplomatic immunity. Some German rescuers, like Oskar Schindler, used deceitful pretexts to protect their workers from deportation claiming the Jews were required by the army for the war effort.

“Smuggling and assisting Jews to escape – some rescuers helped Jews get out of a zone of special danger in order to escape to a less dangerous location. Smuggling Jews out of ghettos and prisons, helping them cross borders into unoccupied countries or into areas where the persecution was less intense, for example to neutral Switzerland, into Italian controlled parts where there were no deportations, or Hungary before the German occupation in March 1944.

“The rescue of children – parents were faced with agonizing dilemmas to separate from their children and give them away in the hope of increasing their chances of survival. In some cases children who were left alone after their parents had been killed would be taken in by families or convents. In many cases it was individuals who decided to take in a child; in other cases and in some countries, especially Poland, Belgium, Holland and France, there were underground organizations that found homes for children, provided the necessary funds, food and medication, and made sure that the children were well cared for.”

Post Script-

As an American, I never really understood the persecution of the Jews in Eastern Europe. (Most Poles had a special hatred for them.) But to me, Jews, they’re just like us! Michael Good finally validated my thinking:

“My parents have always insisted that Poles and Lithuanians could readily identify someone as a Jew, even at a distance. They claimed that the Poles and the Lithuanians had a “sixth sense” that could tell a Jew from a Gentile. I never believed this, as (bolding mine) here in America, most of us cannot tell a person’s ethnicity and/or nationality by looks alone. We often cannot tell a Jew from an Italian or a Pole, etc. Of course, if a male in Vilna was under suspicion, the SS or Lithuanian police could always check to see if he was circumcised…”

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